Catholic Church Groups Fight Bills To Revive Old Sex Abuse Cases

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It's important to say right upfront that this isn't a story about pedophile priests.

Bridie Farrell is Roman Catholic, but she says it was an adult mentor for her sports team, not a priest, who sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager.

"It happened at his house, in his car, in his hotel room," Farrell says.

Farrell did what a lot of kids do when they're molested: She kept silent. But 18 years later, when she was 31 years old, she went public with her story.

The problem is that there's a ticking clock. In a lot of states, including New York, where Farrell was assaulted, if you don't report a rape or file a civil lawsuit fast enough, the perpetrator — whether it's a coach or relative or a priest — gets off scot-free.

But there is a growing effort in statehouses across the country to make it easier to prosecute or sue people who sexually abuse children. Victims rights groups hope some old cases can be reopened, but they face opposition from Roman Catholic leaders, who say the changes could target them unfairly and could bankrupt church organizations.

"It's broken"

New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat, pushed to extend the deadline for reporting sexual assaults against kids. He also wanted to open a one-year window, a kind of grace period, so that victims who have waited too long can get a second chance to sue in civil court.

"The statute of limitations for child sexual abuse is just too short," Hoylman says. "In a word, it's broken."

New York's Catholic bishops spent more than $2 million lobbying to block Hoylman's effort.

Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference, says it's fine to extend the statute of limitations for future sex crimes. But he doesn't think old cases — some of them decades old — should be dragged back into court.

"We just think it's fundamentally unjust," Poust says. "Evidence is lost and memories fade; witnesses are dead. There's just no way to defend against such cases."

Laws making it easier to prosecute pedophiles and opening retroactive windows for civil lawsuits have passed in other states, including California, Hawaii and Minnesota. Poust says in those places, Catholic organizations faced hundreds of millions of dollars in new claims and settlements.

"Plaintiff's attorneys have been teeing these cases up for many years and are more than willing to harm today's Catholics, who had nothing to do with abuse of the past," Poust says.

Other lobbying efforts

New York isn't the only state where Catholic leaders are pushing back.

In Pennsylvania, a similar measure was debated this spring. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia distributed fliers during Mass targeting Catholic lawmakers who support extending the statute of limitations. Pennsylvania state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, a Republican, says the church tried to shame him.

"This came from the archdiocese and the priests were kind of sent out to do the dirty work," he says.

This debate feels raw in part because it's happening within the Roman Catholic community, with some Catholic lawmakers breaking ranks with church leaders — and also because these crimes, while often decades old, are still coming to light.

In March, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a new report describing rape and sexual violence against hundreds of children by more than 50 priests in one diocese, Altoona-Johnstown.

"I'm a Catholic, but when that grand jury report came out it devastated our community, and there are still people trying to silence the victims now," says state Rep. Frank Burns, a Democrat.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia declined to be interviewed for this story. The organization did send a letter to NPR saying there's nothing wrong with this kind of campaign, nothing wrong with priests sharing information about how Catholic lawmakers vote.

Their lobbying efforts have been effective. The bill expanding the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children died in New York's Legislature. A similar measure stalled in Pennsylvania's state Senate.

Copyright 2016 North Country Public Radio. To see more, visit North Country Public Radio.

A previous version of this story misspelled some references to state Sen. Brad Hoylman's last name as Holyman.

Addendum on Aug. 25: In the audio, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Bridie Farrell was sexually assaulted by her speedskating coach. In fact, the perpetrator was an adult mentor for her team, not the coach.